The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson
A review by Laura Miller
Even as a kid, watching Pillow Talk on Dialing for Dollars during the long,
rainy afternoons of the pre-cable era, I knew there was something odd about Rock
Hudson. Apparently, a sex comedy can be so devoid of sexual energy that even a
child in the latency stage will notice its absence. Later, when I went off to
college in the San Francisco Bay Area, I learned what "everyone" knew:
Rock Hudson was not only gay, he was the basis for the closeted movie star who
romanced one of the male characters in Armistead Maupin's serialized novel Tales
of the City. That, I figured, explained Hudson's implausible performances.
Unlike other gay performers, he wasn't a good enough actor to convincingly simulate
the lust for Doris Day that he never personally felt.
On the other hand, the bizarre, glossy comedies Hudson made with Day were huge
hits. Plenty of Americans bought Hudson as a heterosexual leading man, enough
to make him the No. 1 box office attraction for several years in the '50s and
'60s. Enough to prompt shrieks of shock and disbelief throughout the land when
Hudson died of AIDS in 1985.
Now, having read Robert Hofler's The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty
Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, I have a better understanding of
what made Hudson so stilted on-screen. His desire for his leading ladies was
patently artificial, yes, but so were his teeth, his walk, his voice, even his
smile. Rock Hudson was a male Eliza Doolittle, the masterpiece of Henry Willson,
who fabricated a matinee idol out of the raw material of one Roy Fitzgerald,
a gauche former sailor and truck driver who could barely cross a room without
tripping over his own feet when the two men first met in 1947.
Willson, who started out writing puffery about a set of young film actors for
fan magazines in the early 1930s, was a star-maker of genius. Although for a
while he worked with the legendary producer David O. Selznick during Selznick's
less than glorious post-Gone With the Wind years, mostly Willson was
an agent. For a time he was one of the most powerful in Hollywood, and eventually
he was -- to use a term Hofler is particularly fond of -- the most notorious.
Willson represented some big female stars in addition to Hudson: Natalie Wood,
Joan Fontaine and Lana Turner, whom he discovered. (He also saw the potential
in Montgomery Clift and Alain Delon, though he failed to sign them on.) But
Willson's specialty was handsome, strapping young men, each of whom he rechristened
with some preposterously butch moniker: Guy Madison (who inspired a journalist
to coin the term "beefcake"), Troy Donahue, John Saxon, Rad Fulton,
Race Gentry, Cal Bolder, Clint Connors, etc., even a pair of twins he renamed
Dirk and Dack Rambo. Acting ability wasn't required, conventional good looks
were a must and willingness to have sex with the ferret-faced Willson was --
while not absolutely necessary -- very, very strongly encouraged.
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson is a gritty, often coarse but well-researched
biography of a tough Hollywood power broker famous for his "Adonis factory."
Its counterpart, also just published, is Tab
Hunter Confidential, the autobiography of an Adonis and former Willson client.
Hunter tells the story of prefab '50s stardom from the other side of the contract.
His career was fairly brief; he was a teen idol, swamped with fan letters and
photo requests from pubescent girls for a few years (he received 62,000 valentines
in 1956), but he never succeeded in landing any really memorable film roles.
Even in Hunter's heyday, people joked about his synthetic persona the way they
joke today about teenybopper acts like Jesse McCartney and Ashlee Simpson. When
Hunter's fame began to dim, he resorted to cheesy B-movies with titles like
Operation Bikini and an endless grind of dinner-theater engagements that
helped him pay the rent and support his ailing mother.
For all that, Hunter seems astonishingly free of bitterness. Most of his indignation
is reserved for scandal sheets and two-faced directors and performers who buttered
him up in person then, years later, mocked his work. Today, he lives with his
younger partner, a producer, and still keeps a hand in the business; he's a
living testimonial to the idea that a sweet disposition is its own reward. The
smart, cynical, ruthless Willson wound up a paranoid wreck of a charity case,
living in the Motion Picture Country Home, a sort of rest home for indigent
show business people, until he died in 1978. As Hofler points out with relish,
the master name inventor died without enough funds to put his own name on his
Willson was never able to adjust to the transformation of Hollywood in the
post-studio era, or to reconcile himself to the fact that he couldn't keep spending
money the way he did at the peak of Rock Hudson's fame. (To be fair, much of
that money he spent freely and generously on his young clients.) Hunter, by
contrast, was flexible enough (and hip enough) to recognize a good thing when
cult director John Waters called up to ask him to star in Polyester in
the early '80s. His agent at the time was horrified by the idea of Hunter starring
alongside the transvestite icon Divine, but the role rejuvenated Hunter's career.
The most fascinating parts of both these books describe what it was like to
be a prominent gay man in 1950s Hollywood. According to Hunter, there was an
unspoken gentlemen's agreement with the industry and press: "the rule was,
act discreetly, and people would respect your right to privacy. I'd mastered
it." Hunter's longest affairs during this time, with the figure skater
Ronnie Robertson and fellow actor Anthony Perkins, took place beneath the radar
of even the most avidly dirt-sniffing tabloids.
Willson made a point of never living with another man and was draconian in
enforcing the same rule with his clients. He was known to drive past a young
actor's house in the dead of night to make sure another man's car wasn't injudiciously
parked out front. Those who disobeyed soon saw the roles dry up; Willson didn't
want to invest too much effort in a wannabe star who wouldn't play by the rules.
Although he regularly took specimens from his stable of pretty boys to clubs
and restaurants, he was never seen with less than two at a time. As he saw it
"three men always translated as a night out with the boys, two men read
as a date."
Willson, like his clients, made a practice of escorting an assortment of actresses
and other well-known women to premieres and parties. Willson planted items about
his "engagements" to several such notables, including the president's
daughter, Margaret Truman, in the press (an engagement that goes unmentioned
in her memoirs, written only a few years later). Hunter had an entire alternate-universe
love life in fan magazines, where articles elaborated on the ups and downs of
his romances with Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. At the peak of "Sigh
Guy" mania, whole magazines were devoted to Hunter, featuring fake interviews
with Wood about what sorts of presents Hunter gave her and stories elucidating
"What Every Girl Should Know About Tab Hunter." The man himself (real
name, Art Gelien), was baffled: "Why did so many people want to see me
in these absurdly fake situations?" he writes. "Tab Hunter tries on
a sport coat! Tab Hunter goes on a picnic! Tab Hunter water-skis!"
In fact, Hunter's stardom happened in the press more than on the screen. "Despite
being the subject of a publicity barrage," he writes of the first year
or so, "I couldn't get work." He had to either go back to his pre-acting
jobs of scooping ice cream and mucking out stables or, as Willson preferred,
collect unemployment. "Heading to that ugly redbrick government building,"
Hunter writes, "I'd pass a newsstand where the latest issues of Photoplay
and Movie Life detailed my whirlwind life as a new screen sensation."
Celebrity journalism was at least as potent in Hunter's day as it is now; back
then it could manufacture its own world. "Those magazines created Tab Hunter,
virtually out of whole cloth," Hunter writes, and he credits them over
Willson in making his name. This seems a bit unfair, as Willson was a master
at using the press -- particularly party photographs. Once Lana Turner became
a star, Willson privately set her up with sex dates (according to Hofler, they
both appreciated well-endowed young men). In return she agreed to attend a premiere
with Willson protégé Rory Calhoun (in reality an ex-con named
Francis Durgin). Willson cannily suggested that Turner wear white fur, to play
up the contrast between the actress' blondness and Calhoun's wolfish, black-Irish
good looks and dark suit. The photos of the pair are still striking, shot through
with all sorts of vaguely taboo sexual innuendo, and they caused a sensation.
Up to that point, Calhoun had uttered precisely one line on film.
Another Willson publicity coup helped launch Rock Hudson, initially a marginally
competent actor who needed 36 takes to correctly cough out the line "You've
got to get a bigger blackboard" in Raoul Walsh's Fighter Squadron
(1949). Willson had Hudson and well-known dancer-actress Vera-Ellen attend the
fancy dress Press Photographers Ball as twin Oscar statues, covered in gold
body paint. (À la Goldfinger, the paint nearly asphyxiated Hudson.)
Again, the photographs were plastered everywhere.
With Hudson, however, Willson had found both the supreme creation of his star-making
career and a source of perpetual worry. Unlike Hunter, Hudson was anything but
discreet. One of Hofler's sources remembers meeting the star at L.A.'s Farmer's
Market at 2 a.m., openly cruising for men. "Henry had his standards,"
said Willson's assistant, "but Rock would sleep with anyone." Hudson
seems to have tried to accomplish just that, demanding sexual favors ("the
Rock trap") from Willson clients who had landed minor roles in his films,
and turning up in search of fresh "talent" for threesomes at Willson's
infamously frisky pool parties during the late '50s and early '60s. "Rock's
sex drive was enormous," Van Williams, another Willson client, told Hofler.
As a result, Willson had his hands full fending off blackmailers and spurned
lovers once Hudson became a big name. The "dirty deals" of Hofler's
title for the most part all trace back to Rock's high jinks. There are the off-duty
Los Angeles Police Department officers whom Willson and his on-retainer private
detectives hired to rough up the guy with the photos of Hudson in flagrante
delicto and the boyfriend who threatened to go public unless he was allowed
to sit next to Hudson at events. Yet another client insists that he heard Willson
call in a bunch of favors from the Mob (he'd provided stars for the opening
nights of Las Vegas clubs) to get two of Hudson's blackmailers "rubbed
The great nemesis of gay Hollywood during the '50s was Confidential
magazine, a scurrilous scandal sheet that reported on peccadilloes the mainstream
press and fan magazines wouldn't touch. Confidential had a standing offer
for dirt on Hudson, and two of the star's ex-lovers had turned down $10,000
offers to tell their stories. It was only a matter of time until Confidential
got something juicy on Hudson.
Hence one of the dirtiest deals in Willson's résumé: In 1955,
he fed Confidential information on the criminal past of Rory Calhoun,
his own client, and Tab Hunter, whom Willson had never forgiven for firing him
and signing on with his archrival, agent Dick Clayton. Hofler maintains that
it's common knowledge that Willson made this trade -- dirt on Calhoun and Hunter
(who was picked up in a raid on a gay party in 1950) in exchange for protection
for Rock Hudson. Hunter doesn't seem to be aware of it, to judge from his book.
In later years, Willson took to claiming that J. Edgar Hoover would "take
care" of any blackmailers for him, and Hofler comes up with some mighty
suggestive, if inconclusive remarks about an "informant" in the FBI
file on Hudson.
Surprisingly, the Confidential exposés did little to hurt Calhoun,
whose bad boy image was only burnished by the revelations of his "hardcore
criminal past." Even Hunter emerged relatively unscathed. The circulation
of Confidential was too small to affect his public image and even when,
two years later, Hunter was dragged into a libel trial against the magazine,
it didn't affect him much. "In 1957 the mainstream media couldn't even
come up with adequate euphemisms for homosexuality -- that's how taboo it still
was," he writes. So the press stuck to tales of alleged heterosexual misbehavior
and left the more unspeakable rumors alone.
The media did wind up killing Hunter's career, just as he was trying to establish
himself as a TV star, but not as a result of his sexuality. He was raked over
the coals because his neighbors in Glendale took offense when he rejected their
dinner invitations and refused to linger with the local girls who "accidentally"
bumped into him outside his front gate. In revenge, they accused him of savagely
beating his dog, Fritz, a particularly egregious charge considering Hunter is
a great animal lover. He was eventually cleared in a media circus trial, but
the damage was done. Ironically, as Hofler points out, "Tab's demise had
little to do with a gay arrest, which was completely substantiated, and more
to do with the dog-beating charge, which was completely unfounded."
As for Willson's prudence, in the end it didn't really pay off. After narrowly
averting a Rock-related crisis, the agent insisted that his top star marry quickly
to squelch any further rumors. Willson's own secretary, Phyllis Gates, was the
sacrificial beard. To the bitter end, Gates made the improbable claim that she
went into it not realizing that Hudson was gay, but for the rest of Hollywood
the wedding had the opposite of the intended effect. "When Rock got married
-- that's when the industry just laughed itself silly," Debbie Reynolds
told a reporter for Buzz magazine. "Then people started talking
about [Rock's homosexuality]."
"It was the biggest blow to Henry's career," Van Williams told Hofler.
"It put a seal of finality on it, that it was true: Henry was gay, Rock
was gay, a number of his clients were gay. He had a lot of straight clients,
but they got the reputation: if you're with Henry Willson, you got to be a fag."
As Hofler discovered in doing some digging of his own, several former Willson
clients -- most notably Robert Wagner -- began to deny that they'd ever worked
with him. The man who'd made his name as -- and based his identity on being
-- a creator of stars had ended up repelling them.
There are two noteworthy low points described in these books. In Tab Hunter
Confidential, Hunter, caught on the dinner theater treadmill, looks up at
the marquee of an establishment where he's set to perform that night and sees
that the sign reads not "Tab Hunter in Bye Bye Birdie" but
"Special Tonite: Lobster $9.95." In The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,
Willson, by 1972, is reduced to bartering his antiques and silverware with his
housekeeper in exchange for her continued services: "I'll give you this
lamp if you stay another week."
Both incidents are mortifying, but instructively so. Hunter, blessed with the
virtue of humility, has lived to offer up his own setbacks for laughs. He might
have played Hollywood's game, but he didn't invest in it or believe in it too
deeply, and when it was time to let go, he did. Cheap lobster outranked him
on the marquee, but he was working. Willson, by contrast, was pathetically trying
to shore up a lifestyle he could no longer afford by selling it off piece by
piece. Willson was a brilliant identifier of talent, a consummate showbiz professional,
a double-crosser, a cutthroat competitor, a shark. Hunter was a modest talent,
an innocent, starry-eyed and inconveniently idealistic. It's funny which one
turned out to be the real survivor.